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The sorcerer's apprentice.

In the world of journalism, live broadcasting has a special magic. For the viewer it suggests immediacy, importance, a sense of being there as the news unfolds. For journalists who can deliver breaking news in real time it imparts added authority, because "the live" is thought to provide news in its purest form--witness the rise of the hidden camera as an investigative tool, even though it can overstep the bounds of good journalism, as in the Food Lion case.

What kind of news, however, is "the live"? The television coverage of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial gave the public an overdose of live broadcasting. Television stations scrambled to accommodate two breaking stories--the President's pre-scheduled, scripted State of the Union Message and the unexpected release of the verdict in the Simpson civil trial. Television could not display the best side of its kind of journalistic storytelling--live shots from the scene of breaking news. Instead, it was confined to showing its least compelling features. The decision to turn the cameras on the outside of the Santa Monica courtroom made journalism a prisoner of its own technology, because the satellite image stayed with the story beyond a necessary or desirable time frame.

As journalists sought the best way to depict the two simultaneous events, viewers were let in on a backstage fact about journalism: It can only broadcast live when it knows in advance what is going to happen. Because news routinizes the unexpected, we saw pictures of journalists organizing their collective waiting. They milled about on both of the nation's coasts, pushing through crowds in both the Capitol and in Santa Monica. The Simpson verdict provided a closeup of news-work for two full hours of broadcast time--not its excitement and passion but the boredom and tedium that compose much of journalistic routine off-camera. The networks were saved from showing even more of the tedium only by the fortuitous intrusion of the State of the Union address. Viewers were told more about how the media handle the logistics of covering the story than about the story itself.

During the wait we saw and heard little that was new. Endless speculation and rehashing of major points filled airtime. We received updates on the Santa Monica rush-hour traffic and the President's refusal to delay his address. Reporters speculated on the air about which story would displace the other. We were repeatedly reminded of the challenge of simultaneously covering two breaking stories. Assessments of the relative significance of each story became skewed, as when an ABC reporter predicted that the O.J. verdict would increase the President's viewing public.

The Simpson civil trial ended much like the Simpson case had begun--with prolonged televised footage of a crowd of journalists in place of the endless footage of a white Bronco driving on the freeway. Certain programs--E! Network Television, Court TV and Rivera Live--elected to cover up to three hours of waiting for the O.J. outcome, though it took just under four minutes to actually read the verdict. Other stations chose to show the State of the Union speech, but broke away from the Capitol to recount the jury's decision or reported it in small insets beside shots of Washington. And through it all we heard about the excitement of the conflict between the two stories. CBS's Dan Rather exulted, "What a night this is turning out to be!" The tension caused by the two events battling for attention abated when the verdict arrived just after the President finished speaking, but cameras continued to switch between the G.O.P. response and the Goldman family leaving the courthouse. Nonsensical parallels were concocted to link the two events: the "majesty" of the legal system and the political process, the contrast between one black man being convicted in Santa Monica while another presented the G.O.P. response to the President.

Even the announcement of the verdict provided inadequate visuals. Viewers saw angled pictures of a trailer in the parking lot, which served as a relay system for shots of cards flashed from the courtroom windows with "Y" (for a yes verdict) and "N" (for a no). These televisuals served only to convey the problems of covering the story. Reporters running between the courthouse and their broadcasting relay points were trapped in throngs of people. And that difficulty intruded on the other event, as CBS found it had run out of time and scrapped plans for its pundit chat following the presidential address.

The blackout of television coverage inside the courtroom echoed an earlier lack of visuals that had sent television on a frantic search that produced a plethora of uninformative stock footage: O.J. alone and with ex-wife Nicole, head shots of Ron Goldman, pictures of the Simpson children. Limited in their newsworthiness, these pictures merely established journalists' presence without showing anything viewers needed to see. And even when the visuals were newsworthy and displayed photographic evidence that might prove Simpson's culpability--such as the thirty-one shots of him wearing those Bruno Magli shoes--they were endlessly repeated.

The emptiness of the live coverage of the Simpson verdict showed television journalism's vulnerability when unexpected events occur. The cult of the satellite image, by which the mythology of instantaneity and simultaneity can create a false sense of newsworthiness, left television journalism unable to edit out the chaos, boredom and clutter. This live broadcast revealed how scripted live broadcasting usually is by forcing television news to reveal more of what was going on behind the scenes than it could possibly have intended.

When Good Morning America called the coverage of the two breaking stories "surreal," it both missed the point and was prescient. The coverage was surreal in the sense that it highlighted the chaos behind the work of journalists rather than the finished product. If left unencumbered, live coverage may yet become surreal, its technological magic turning into a sorcerer's apprentice that overpowers the journalism it is supposed to serve.
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Title Annotation:Media Matters; 'live' broadcasting of news
Author:Zelizer, Barbie
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 3, 1997
Words:993
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